Behind the scenes of a bewildering week

   2023-01-20 00:01

And then there’s the Davos smooth talk. Everywhere you go, you overhear people wheedling, pitching, persuading, glad-handling, soft-soaping, self-promoting. In Davos, everyone is a buyer or a seller of something. The currencies are access and influence – and, of course, money itself, which in Davos often whispers rather than talks.

Beyond that, though, everyone’s Davos is different. If you’re a US bank executive, you’ll have a suite or shopfront, a bevy of minions, a host of eager clients filling up your calendar, and sheaf of party invites.



Nobody really understands the badge system at Davos. Hans van Leeuwen

If you’re a tech or crypto bro, you’ll be hanging out in the tech companies’ networking hubs, going to the panels on AI or blockchain, and drinking way too much free coffee.

If you’re a foreign government, you might have splurged on a massive shopfront full of signage, and brought a phalanx of ministers to woo investors – and also get some bilateral meetings done without the cumbersome chore of having to draft a communique.

If you’re an academic, you might be transacting more in the realm of ideas and research partnerships, or eyeing off the wallets of the neighbourhood philanthropists.

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And if you’re a journalist, you’ll be trying to make sense of all this, trying to convey to the outside world what on earth is going on here, and what – if anything – it all means.

Picking the vibe

The WEF team tries to help us journalists out by putting on dozens and dozens of panel discussions, organising periodic keynote speeches, and issuing a torrent of reports and press releases.

All of this is supposed to create, or distil – take your pick – some kind of vibe or zeitgeist, that helps the captains of industry understand where the world is at.

The WEF knows its own mind. The answer to the world’s problems is stakeholder capitalism: the German corporatist model on a global scale. Free trade and globalisation, yes, but arranged and curated by an insider elite for the benefit of all.

This might or might not be a plausible model of a well-functioning society, but it raises hackles on both left and right.

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On the left, it looks like wealthy elites running the show for their own benefit, trampling on notions of equality. On the right it looks like wealthy elites running the show for their own benefit, trampling on notions of freedom.

But the WEF’s account of what Davos is, and is for, only scratches the surface. Many people disappear into their own sectoral echo chambers. And most of the important stuff isn’t found on the WEF livestream.

Most people are here to do business, and make connections. As one Australian said to me: “In five days you can achieve something that would require 20 trips otherwise, and so just wouldn’t happen.”

Almost every major mining company sent their CEO or chairman. One morning, they all breakfasted together and discussed the state of their industry. This is how the world turns.

At Davos, you can do that kind of business, and have those exchanges, in a way that is far less constrained by protocols and agendas than at almost any other forum. Therein lies its value, which justifies the hefty price of admission.

And the conversations are, it would appear, often more free-ranging than just transactional. All those panels and speeches do seed conversations that might not happen back at the office.

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The week, distilled

Which leads back to the Davos vibe. It isn’t really fair to ask the WEF to provide a reliable guide to the year ahead. The January 2020 edition of Davos was a pretty sunny affair, and two months later half the world was going into COVID-19 lockdown. It can only be a snapshot of the moment.

At the outset of the week, a flurry of reports and surveys of CEOs or economists, most of which were taken in November and December, offered the rear-vision mirror view. Pessimism, uncertainty, anxiety.

Then China’s vice premier took the stage on Tuesday and reminded everyone that one of the world’s two largest economies was very probably going to enjoy a massive rebound this year. Maybe the coat-tails would be big enough for everyone?

But then Ukraine’s First Lady, and later her husband, reminded us that there’s a war on. A nuclear power and major energy producer has been cauterised from the Western world’s trading and investment system. The war is likely to be divisive and expensive.

But wait! The street fronts, and many a panel discussion, were dominated by Indians, Saudis and Emiratis, whose economies are humming and whose confidence is rising.

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Oh, just a minute. We business folk thought we were all making progress on finding solutions to climate change, but here comes pugilistic UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and fed-up Greta Thunberg to return the green debate to black-and-white.

Where does this leave us? Are we up or down? I asked a management consultant and Davos veteran.

“That’s a good provocation,” he replied. “In general, macro wise, the outlook is partly cloudy. Now, does that mean sun’s coming around the corner? Or does it mean there’s a big rainstorm?

“This whole issue of predicting and forecasting, it’s missing the point. We should not be in the prediction business, we should be in the conviction business.”

That might be true, whatever it means. But to be completely honest, this year I found Davos, well – a little unconvincing.


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